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Dénes Nagy: A Face in the Distance

Notes from a film shoot

For the past 5 years I have been working on my first feature film, Natural Light. We shot the film a year ago, and after editing and sound mixing we are coming to the end of post-production.

The film is loosely based on Pál Závada's novel, with the same title, which is one of the first publications that describe the brutal atrocities committed by the Hungarian Army on Soviet territory during the Second World War.

The film tells a story of 3 days from the point of view of Corporal István Semetka, a simple farmer, who was drafted into a Hungarian partisan-hunting unit in occupied Soviet Union in 1943.

He witnesses a mass murder of residents of a small Russian village who are locked in a barn and burnt to death.

He had no say in those decisions. Before the massacre, he had been sent away by a superior officer to search the woods. On his return, he saw the burning barn. It was the barn where he had gathered the villagers. He was unable to do anything about it. He did not say a word about what happened. He did not report it to anybody. He believed he had no other choice. The film shows this man during the three days leading up to the massacre – who he is and how he makes decisions.

The characters of the film are neither heroic, nor evil. They are simple farmers (as are the local Russian villagers). They had been drafted in the army. They felt homesick, cold, tired, and scared but they followed orders. The film captures these people in a situation where they had no clear idea what was awaiting them.

The main character, Corporal István Semetka, doesn't understand the aim of this war. He feels there is a certain darkness surrounding him and feels it coming closer, but does not entirely trust his judgment.

He thinks that he will manage to get through this uncomfortable period of time, forget it, and leave it behind. He'll go back home to his family, and continue his life as a farmer.

His is a situation where things are neither clearly named nor defined. He is in a state of constant flux, of moral ambiguity, where there is no clear boundary between right and wrong.

My focus in moviemaking is on faces. I try to show faces in a seemingly motionless way during their daily routine as they slowly enter the unknown.

Slow pace and limited movement allows me to show a person exposed to time, defenceless against time in the knowledge that one day (s)he will die.

Being able to observe a face so intensively and in close-up allows me to exclude judgement.

I have to go against the usual way of portraying characters in a film, where the focus is on constant movement - where a character is fully revealed in activity and conflict, where emotions are in line with actions. In such movement what dominates is achieving, winning, surviving, becoming a hero. I also have to go against well-defined characterisation where it is clear who is clever but cowardly or lazy but kind-hearted, who is wicked, jealous, etc.

In my film I try to do the opposite, focusing on the depth of character, separating the character's movement from the inner emotions, so as to create a feeling that while one is doing something one’s thoughts are somewhere else. In other words, that what one does is not what one feels because one doesn't know how one should act. There is a constant hesitation going on inside of one, a questioning of self, of ability, responsibility, competence. When we watch a person with such a stifling inner helplessness, seemingly motionless, part of real identity of that person will always remain in shadow. There is a feeling that this face will never fully reveal itself to us, or a more general feeling of the impossibility of becoming integrated/whole, a sense of the tragedy of knowing in part only.

Instead of looking at life as a beautiful panorama, where certain intensified moments of life stand out as mountain peaks, which correlate with each other, this way of viewing/looking allows us to see life, as it were, inside a cave, where there is semi-darkness and groping deeper doesn't help in orientation.

What this character lived through before is of no interest. All that matters is to watch here and now, in the moment, quiet, tense and motionless. This presence drags one in irresistibly. It roars inside, still silent outside. There is fragility instead of consciousness.

The film wants to show how these people exist in time. As animals exist, as an infant exists, as the sun exists. Motionless on the outside but full of movement inside. This point of view of a human being tells less about who is right and who is wrong, who failed and who succeeded. I don't want to show how people differ but what they share.

I was searching for two years to find the actors in the film. I was only looking for amateur actors, peasant faces who showed something archaic, innocent in their gestures, unknowing in their eyes, their skin bearing the trace of time. Faces that do not only appear to be, but are, real. Where a whole story is told by how one holds a cigarette in one’s mouth, how one cuts bread, how one eats, how one stays silent. Because they are silent after all. They are people who do heavy physical work every day, mostly alone with animals, and express themselves furtively, in an indirect way.

I have been searching mostly on cow and pig farms all around the Hungarian countryside looking for men between the ages of 30 and 40, to become the members of the Hungarian army unit in the film. It has been a singular experience to get to know these people, their families, their thoughts and living conditions, slowly, over many visits, earning their trust and winning their desire to participate in a film.

In the end we took 25 farmworkers with us for two months shooting (work they had never done before) thousands of kilometers away from their home in Eastern Latvia, where we made the film. Most of them had never been abroad before, many had not even ventured further than a few villages from where they were born.

In a way it is the same as what happened to those farmers who were drafted during the Second World War and sent to Russia to fight. We took these 25 farmers, gave them weapons, dressed them in uniforms and took them to an unknown country, where they didn't understand the local language. They had to go through military training, become a unit during long marches with (and in) their extremely heavy equipment, and then face day by day in the scenes of the film the unknown Russian villagers/peasants (men women and children who were also played by local Latvian/Russian peasants), and who were, in a way, the same kind of people as themselves.

Working with such people was a key to the film. They brought their own personalities to the screen. In the film they didn't have to become actors. They had to be themselves. The film ultimately adapted to their personalities.

We found our main character, Ferenc, who played Semetka, on a cow farm in a small village in Heves county. He is a man who grazes 150 cattle alone with his dog out in the pasture. It was a miracle for me how he interiorized what I wanted from him. How he accepted my comments and those of my cameraman and how he managed, eventually, to simply be himself in the film

I think we all try to imagine ourselves in movement: flexible, adaptable, clever, up to date, sensitive. We imagine that we are able to write our own history, our own CV. In my film I try to use a point of view that questions this depiction of ourselves. I choose to portray characters in the film who are not able to reflect cleverly or sensitively enough on what surrounds them, who are, in a way, slow, or motionless, whose sight is blurred - who have the illusion that routine makes sense, that routine has a meaning. ‘Routine’ in its wider sense, meaning all the guidelines of society to which we adapt ourselves, the ways of collecting and interpreting information and signs around us. Understanding someone who killed another man as a murderer, someone who won a gold medal as an Olympic champion, someone who directed a film - as a film director.

I am fascinated by the idea of showing a concentrated present moment when a thought passes through your head that hasn't formed its precise outlines yet, that has not yet been reflected upon. What is happening before the main character could form a clear judgment about it. It is the real presence, when one is on one’s own, with no external guidelines.

I want to show people who see but don't yet understand. Who are on the verge of understanding, are just one step behind. But one step behind they still imagine they have the freedom to decide and to interpret, although they are clearly too late. They are clearly unaware that they cannot get away intact.

Am I in such a situation? Are we all in such a situation? Am I able to see myself clearly?

When the moment comes will we not also be vulnerable facing the unknown?

Budapest, 2021.01.14


Dénes NAGY was born in 1980 in Budapest. He studied film directing at the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) in Budapest in the class of János Szász. As a guest student he spent a year at the Berlin Film Academy (DFFB).

He has made several documentaries and fiction films, which were screened at many significant national and international festivals. His short fiction Soft Rain was first presented to the international audience in Cannes at the 45th Directors’ Fortnight selection, while his documentary Another Hungary had its premiere at the 43rd International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Natural Light is his debut feature film, which was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival in 2021.

He lives and works in Budapest.



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